Thoughts on Squats

by on June 4, 2012

June 2012: Thoughts on Squats

To squat or not to squat? That’s been an argument that’s dominated the strength training world for ages now. And I’m not about to keep beating a horse that’s already dead.

I’ll be forthcoming by saying that I personally encourage barbell squats as a staple movement in most typical strength programs, granted you’re a typical healthy individual with no major issues or injuries. But therein lies the problem. We can scrutinize anything – and I am yet to meet someone who has been lifting hard for a while who isn’t dealing with even the slightest muscle or joint issue. Knowing the kind of guy I tend to be, I’m gonna go through some things that can make your squats look and feel better than ever. First, a look at some squat variations:

The Back Squat

Back squats have always been the standard squat variation that most people use, or have at least tried. They give spinal loading, a great leg workout, and, yeah, I said it, hormonal release benefits. They are great for posterior chain development, and learning foundational strength.

The Front Squat

Front squats allow lifters to potentially achieve more ROM, and greater quad development due to the more vertical torso position. For Olympic lifting enthusiasts, it also has great carryover to the catch (or rack) position of the clean. Other front loaded squats, like goblets and Zerchers, enable the lifter to achieve similar benefits.

The Overhead Squat

Most lifters you’ll run into won’t have dabbled with this movement too much. It asks so much overall “balance”…. Hip mobility, posterior chain strength, shoulder mobility, hamstring and low back flexibility and strength, the list goes on… that most people can’t humble themselves enough to get owned by a lift. Such a shame.

This is all fine and dandy, but the squat is quite possibly the most common exercise in the gym that people with certain limitations are barred from doing, let alone doing well. Regardless of the variation of the movement, “bad” knees, hips, and backs can hinder a proper squat, if the lifter’s even willing to attempt them for starters. My thoughts are a mess, but here are some random points that came to mind on squatting in general. Hopefully they can help you or the next guy:

Tall Guys Should Focus on Front Squats

Due to issues with femur length, taller lifters often have a lot of hitches when going for a deep squat, especially when the bar is loaded on the back. The back squat position changes the tilt of the hips to accommodate the bar. As a result the hips can ‘block’ a deep depth, and a lot of compensatory “leaning forward” can follow. This is often seen in the gym when people’s back squats begin to resemble good mornings. Front squatting allows the hips to tilt backwards slightly, relaxing the hamstrings and encouraging more knee flexion. On top of this, the lifter can “balance” against the weight pulling them down forward rather than have to fight against the bar pushing him over. This encourages a much more vertical torso.

Stance Matters

In my article “Cool Diagnostic Tests”, I touched on why I believe different stances are more befitting for different people, especially due to the differences in their skeletal build. With this in mind, it’s important to ensure one thing – that the knees always point where the toes point. Regardless if you squat for powerlifting (wide stance), or weightlifting (narrower stance for deeper depth), your joints can take a lot of unwanted forces if the alignment among the knees, hips and shoulders isn’t promoted.

In the gym, I’ve seen a lot of people trying to squat with their feet shoulder width apart (that’s not too big a deal), but with the toes pointing straight ahead. Though visually tolerable, the truth is there’s nothing to promote stability of the knees, opening of the hips, involvement of the inner thigh musculature, and firing of the glutes from this position. In this article, another important mention I make is with reference to the screw-home mechanism. The rotation that happens between tibia and femur during your knee lockout depends on whether you’re standing (baring load), or load free (like a seated leg extension). Of course, squats are done standing, and in such case the femur is primarily depended on for the greater rotation. You could be really gumming things up if things aren’t in order, so long story short – get that alignment in check!

Injured Guys Need to Get a Grip

Seriously. People act like it’s the end of the world if they lose 10 percent of their max effort for a couple of weeks.

A reality check would be in place for people who have busted up knees and hips from muscle imbalances that haven’t been looked after and treated, but can’t stop doing the same major movements, and heavily loaded at that. This could be for the purpose of keeping their lifts “where they want them to stay”… perhaps they just hit 400 on the squat for the first time last week, and want to keep a good thing going. Psychology’s a bitch. Remember, the people who have the most muscle balance are the ones who will have the best progress in certain lifts. If you spend your life training your chest and shoulders for your bench press to go up, you’ll plateau simply because you have no back musculature to stabilize those shoulders and assist the chest in baring the load. Resultantly, you’ll probably be suffering from some form of chronic pain that will only get worse. Though that example is a little extreme, it’s worth considering. For a person who’s made lifting a hobby, what may start out as a “little twinge”, should be a warning sign right on the spot. Don’t always look for progression in your big lifts if it’s being accomplished at the expense of your joints’ health. It may mean taking time away from the major movement (in this case, squatting) while dealing with the preventive care necessary. But, again, I’m here to help so…

My Favourite exercises to make you a better squatter:

Front Foot Elevated Split Squat

Peterson Step Ups

Both of the above allow the VMO to work much harder than typical squats or lunges would allow. This can set up for some bulletproof knees when things get heavy.

Rear Leg Elevated Split Squat

This is something I use as an exercise nearly as frequently as squatting itself. Excellent for unilateral strength development and attacks the glutes while acting to lengthen the hip flexors under tension. Just what the doctor ordered for mobility.

Glute Bridge with Tennis Ball

Lie on your back and perform a single leg glute bridge. Tuck a tennis ball into the fold of the hip on the opposite leg. Tuck that knee into the chest and try to hold it there while performing the highest bridge possible. (can add video if necessary)

These tricks of the trade should help promote some solid, safe, deep squats. Do them!

For the Guys who do all This Stuff But Still Can’t Squat Deep

The issue very well may be a restriction that’s rooted in the strength of your pelvic floor muscles. There’s a bunch of muscle, ligament, and fascia that surrounds the ‘tailbone’ region of the body, and you’re gonna want to make sure it’s all active. This can promote better stability at the very bottom of your squat.

Create tension through the back. This will activate the upper back muscles to transfer forces against the bar, along with making sure the fascia is doing its job in keeping your upper body stable. Especially where back squats and overhead squats are concerned, upper back tightness is key. I like using cues like “pull the bar apart”, and “squeeze the bar down your back” for back squats.

Start doing keagles. Keagles are probably the easiest exercise in the world, since it’s simply a matter of doing reps of flexing the deep muscles of the pelvic floor. “Hold your pee in”. Learning to voluntarily activate these muscles on command will transfer into more involvement during the big lifts. You can do these anywhere, any time. Deal with it. You can do everything that you can. If none of it has resulted in a full depth squat, there are a hundred other exercises that can act to make your legs bigger and stronger. Do them, and don’t lose too much sleep over the rest.

Getting Down to the Bottom of Things

In one very popular article for TNATION, Mike Boyle considered squats (back squats even more specifically) to be a “lower back exercise” that didn’t need as much attention as they’ve been given in the strength and athletic conditioning world. At first, I didn’t know how to interpret that statement, but looking back, I think he may have been on to something.

The tone in this article definitely took a left turn, but I believe that everything should be evaluated and taken with a grain of salt. In this piece were 101 recommendations, modifications, techniques, and assistance exercises to make you a better squatter. Don’t be afraid to use them. Alternatively, if you’re not competing, don’t be afraid to use squats less frequently in efforts to better your joint and muscle health. The time spent away from squatting and focused on other leg movements will probably have a positive carryover to the actual performance and feel of your squats once you return to them full on. What I’m trying to say is this. There are thousands of awesome exercises out there. If you let your mind get wrapped around the fact that ONE popular exercise could be a problem, then it could deflate your ego, and damage your performance in everything else. Furthermore, it could even discourage you from training as regularly. Don’t let this happen. In the case of squatting, I hope this article – in one way or another – provides some light at the end of the tunnel.

Lee Boyce

Lee BoyceLee Boyce is based in Toronto, Canada, and works with strength training and preventive care clients. He is the owner of and is a contributing author to many major publications including Musclemag, TNATION, Men’s Health, and Men’s Fitness. Check out his website and be sure to follow him on twitter @coachleeboyce.